My guest today explores the ramifications of an accident on a family, an accident that could have been avoided. Please help me welcome author Susan Beckham Zurenda! Let’s peek at her background and then learn more about her writing process and inspiration.
Susan Zurenda taught English for 33 years on the college level and at the high school level to AP students. Her debut novel, Bells for Eli (Mercer University Press, March 2020; paperback edition March 2021), has been selected the Gold Medal (first place) winner for Best First Book—Fiction in the 2021 IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Awards), a Foreword Indie Book Award finalist, a Winter 2020 Okra Pick by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, a 2020 Notable Indie on Shelf Unbound, a 2020 finalist for American Book Fest Best Book Awards, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for 2021. She has won numerous regional awards for her short fiction. She lives in Spartanburg, SC.
Betty: What inspired you to write the story you’re sharing with us today?
Susan: Bells for Eli is inspired by a real-life first cousin’s tragic childhood accident in the late 1950s when he swallowed Red Devil Lye just before his second birthday. His father was blowing up balloons for his son’s party with the lye and left it in a Coca-Cola bottle. Danny picked up the bottle and drank. Inspired by Danny’s accident, the novel explores how one misstep changes the trajectory of a young boy’s life and creates immense conflict in the lives of those around him in a time and place of supposed innocence, the small-town South of the 1960s and ’70s.
Betty: What, if any, new writing skill did you develop while working on this story?
Susan: The genesis for Bells for Eli was a short story that won the South Carolina Fiction Prize many years ago. In that story, I chose a third person limited female narrator, but in the novel, I wanted a more intimate voice to connect with the reader. What I learned in creating Delia’s voice was not to force it. Almost from the beginning it didn’t feel like I was creating the voice so much as it felt like Delia speaking to me. It was much like listening to a girlfriend or one of my daughters talking, but instead of her talking to me, it was through me. I wrote Delia’s dialogue the way I heard her speak inside my head.
Betty: Did you struggle with any part of this story? What and how?
Susan: Eli’s father, Gene Winfield, was one of the most difficult characters for me to write because I didn’t like him. He is the person responsible, at least indirectly, for Eli’s accident. He’s also alcoholic and volatile. Yet, in his own dysfunctional way he loves his son, and some of his difficulties are rooted in guilt. It wasn’t until I wrote a scene in which Gene intercedes in an attempt to protect his son from bullying by other boys in the schoolyard on a Halloween afternoon that I began to feel sympathy for him. And I was so glad because Gene is human, neither all bad nor all good.
Betty: Which character(s) were the easiest to get to know? Why do you think?
Susan: Delia, my protagonist, is the easiest to get to know because she’s the first person narrator and she expresses her feelings openly.
I liked creating all the characters. I missed them a great deal when I finished writing the book. I particularly liked watching Mary Lily, Eli’s mother, come to life because I’ve never known anyone quite like her. But I guess if I’m pressed, I feel closest to my main characters, Delia and Eli, because I experienced everything with them.
Betty: What kind of research did you need to do to write this story?
Susan: Because I came of age in the 1960s-70s, I thought I would remember everything. I was wrong. I researched language, music, cultural icons, among other things. It was so much fun to go back to this time.
Betty: How many drafts of the story did you write before you felt the story was complete?
Susan: I wrote the initial manuscript of Bells for Eli in about a year. After my agent accepted the novel in its initial form, I wrote a subplot (the story of Francie) and wove it into the novel. It was the exact right thing to do.
Betty: What rituals or habits do you have while writing?
Susan: Most authors write in the mornings, but I typically write in the evenings. I am too distracted and self-critical during the day, but once night approaches, my inner critic goes to sleep, and I can relax and write for hours.
Betty: Every author has a tendency to overuse certain words or phrases in drafts, such as just, once, smile, nod, etc. What are yours?
Susan: In the drafting stage, I tend to have my characters “glare” too much and put their hands on their foreheads too often. Thank goodness for editing.
Betty: Do you have any role models? If so, why do you look up to them?
Susan: I love so many authors, especially Southern authors. There are certain books like The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers that I consider near perfect pieces of writing.
Betty: Do you have a special place to write? Revise? Read?
Susan: I love to write outside when the weather permits. Mostly, though, I write on an aged desktop computer in my crowded office. My favorite place to read is the bathtub.
Betty: Many authors have a day job. Do you? If so, what is it and do you enjoy it?
Susan: I taught English for 33 years and loved my career. During this time, I published a lot of short fiction, but I didn’t start my debut novel until I retired from teaching and began working part time as a book publicist.
Betty: As an author, what do you feel is your greatest achievement?
Susan: Bells for Eli has been well received and has won several awards. I am grateful. But when a reader tells me he/she has read the novel more than once or is still thinking about the characters and the story, that’s the highest honor I could ever hope for. In a letter to his friend ErnestHemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The purpose of a work of fiction is to appeal to the lingering after-effects in the reader’s mind.” This is my purpose in Bells for Eli: for my characters’ lives to resonate with readers after the novel ends.
Betty: What is your favorite genre to read?
Susan: Literary fiction.
In the 1960-s and ’70s fictitious small-town of Green Branch, SC, two first cousins, Eli and Delia, grow up across the street from each other in a relationship illustrating the extraordinary depths of tenderness and friendship in Susan Beckham Zurenda’s debut novel, Bells for Eli. After a life-altering childhood accident compromises Eli physically and makes him the target of bullying, Delia becomes his great defender. Later, in adolescence, the outer appearance of Eli’s accident gone, the cousins’ relationship grows into one with deeper, more complicated feelings. Though Eli dates every girl in town and eventually falls in love, Delia is never far away. At every turn he assumes the role of her protector. His wounds of the heart from childhood never leave, however, and are the catalyst for decisions that bring this novel to a staggering conclusion, and Delia discovers a shocking family secret that reveals truths about Eli she has never known.
This sounds like a very powerful story, Susan. Thank you for sharing it with us!
Award-winning Author of Historical Fiction with Heart, and Haunting, Bewitching Love Stories
Visit www.bettybolte.com for a complete list of my books and appearances.
Subscribe to My Newsletter to learn the inside scoop about releases and more!